The Exterminating Angel

 

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Last night I watched TheExterminating Angel by Luis Brunuel, the 1962 film which Thomas Ades based his most recent opera on and it is illuminating to watch both the film and the opera in light of these interesting times.

The story starts with guests arriving at a lavish dinner party, a scene that is repeated ‘cut and spliced’ exactly – included in the opera but cut from many film releases – and cutting it is a fundamental error as repetition plays a vital role in the work.

The guests move to the music room where one of them plays a piece on the piano. For some reason they are unable to move from the room and they remain in there for days and gradually lose all of their common customs of civility and an ugly side of their characters emerge. The reason why they can’t leave the room isn’t made clear and remains enigmatic.

After one of the guests has died, two lovers have committed suicide, the host announces that it is all his fault and that the answer is for him to kill himself. But suddenly a young angelic female guest takes the centre stage of the room and encourages them all to recreate in every detail the first evening when they moved into the music room. In the act of recreation they suddenly transform – return to the personalities that they had displayed on their arrival at the feast. Having reestablished their original characters they are able to leave the room and the house.

The end of the film is disjointed and left unclear and unresolved. The guests go to a church to give thanks and then become trapped once again, this time in the church and when they eventually come out there is an uprising with sounds of gun shots. It ends with sheep entering the church.

Bruñuel doesn’t give his own interpretation, but you can see that in the context of the Spanish civil war these guests could represent the bourgeoisie going up the cul-de-sac of their own cultural exploits; trapped by their decadent obsessions. And the work could also been seen as a psychological study of the use of repetition, the way the subject constructs and reconstructs and reinterprets constructions of their character and how easily these reconstructions can become traps. After the breakdown they manage to reconstruct their ego structure so that they can escape the room but are they just repeating the same imaginary identifications and captures? The fact that they subsequently become trapped in the church might imply that however much they change their context, they can’t move beyond their obsessional looping.

 

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